One of the most-useful things you can do with an iPad is view and annotate PDF documents. There are many apps for this (some of which Nicole Black reviewed on Lawyerist last year), but Easy Annotate recently asked me to try its app. So I did, and I compared it to two other apps I already use: GoodReader and Skitch.
iOS now makes it easier to open things in other apps. All three of these, for example, reside in the sharing options. When you are viewing a PDF in any other app (Dropbox, Mail, Gmail, etc.), tap the sharing icon, select “Open In … ,” and then the app you want. You can send annotated PDFs back to the app it came from using the same dialog. That makes iOS work pretty similar to your computer when it comes to opening and saving documents.
Easy Annotate and GoodReader, though, give you additional options; they can pull in documents directly from other sources. Tons of other sources, in the case of GoodReader.
Once you get those PDFs into your app of choice, you have, basically, five ways to annotate them:
- Add comment
- Add text
Some apps add things like stamps, arrows, and other shapes that are basically pre-formatted drawings. Or different styles of underlining (including strikethrough).
PDFs come in two flavors: those with text and those that are only images. Many of the annotation features only work when the PDF contains text, whether because it was converted from a Word document or because the text in an image has been recognized by OCR. Namely, highlighting and underlining text only works on documents that actually have text.
Otherwise, you are limited to the drawing tools for typical markup, though you can use thick lines and adjust the opacity to make highlights. And you can still add notes and text. But still, your options are more limited with image-only PDFs. All the annotation apps have the same limitations.
Anyway, on to the apps.
First up, Easy Annotate.
In Easy Annotate (full disclosure: I got a free copy of Easy Annotate so that I could review it), you can have two PDFs open at a time, side by side. This is a cool feature, but I’m not really sure how useful it is. An iPad really isn’t big enough to comfortably display two documents at a time. Plus, how often would you want to be simultaneously annotating two documents at once? I mean, it’s absolutely useful to have more than one document open at a time if one is a Word document you are drafting and the others are your research or notes, but no app I’m aware of can do that.
I can’t remember a time I have been reading and annotating two documents at the same time. It’s all I can do to focus on one at a time. Still, it could be useful once in a while, and you can turn it off if, like me, you do not find it useful.
But the point of this article is, after all, the annotation. And I found myself a bit disappointed. First, it takes more steps than it should to annotate things in Easy Annotate. You must:
- Touch the “Edit” icon
- Select the icon for the color and style of annotation you want
- Touch the document where you want to add the annotation
- Touch the “Edit” icon (which now shows the icon of the annotation tool you selected) to save your annotations
Modifying annotations is just a matter of touching an annotation. Then you can edit line thickness, opacity, and more.
I found that not all the annotation tools worked on my first attempt. Sometimes, I would select the tool, then tap the document, and … nothing. Sometimes more tapping would get a result, but usually I would have to exit the annotation tool and re-select it to get a result. It was frustrating, to say the least.
The undo function is unintuitive and unpredictable. If you click it while annotating, it seems to undo the last-saved annotation, not the previous thing you did in your current annotation. If you try to undo a comment, it will first undo the typing, even though you cannot see it because the comment shrinks down to an icon when you are not editing it. So in order to undo a comment, you may have to touch the undo icon many times, even though nothing seems to be happening. And it does not seem possible to undo some things at all.
Based on the problems I had with annotations not working and not undoing, I did not find it very easy to annotate with Easy Annotate.
Next up: GoodReader.
GoodReader is like a Swiss Army knife for document management in iOS. You can connect it directly to a fairly long list of servers, including mail servers, Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive, Google Drive, and mot popular file-sharing protocols. I only wish it worked with BitTorrent Sync, but in fairness, not much does, yet. It functions like a much-needed file manager for iOS. If you use your iPad for business, you need GoodReader.
In addition to letting you view, sync, and upload files, GoodReader lets you annotate PDFs. It’s annotation options are more extensive than Easy Annotate, adding variations like squiggly underlining, arrows, boxes and circles, and an eraser. And they are also a bit easier to use, because you do not have to “save” your annotations the way you do in Easy Annotate, and because you can pin the annotation toolbar open, so you don’t need to tap it every time you want to mark up a document.
To edit annotations, just touch them for a pop-up menu with (extensive) options. You can also crop and rotate documents, and adjust the brightness, which are nice options to have.
Overall, annotations in GoodReader are easy enough to use. The first time you modify a file, you can choose whether to save the document to the same file or create an annotated copy while the original is preserved without them. (In Easy Annotate or Skitch, the original file is not written over unless you manually overwrite the file through the “Open In … ” dialog (which would be difficult because you would have to change the filename, too).
Next up: Skitch.
Skitch has the fewest features of the three I reviewed, but it is the easiest way to annotate PDFs. And it is free.
The interface is simple, and you cannot connect Skitch directly to Dropbox like you can with Easy Annotate and GoodReader. But opening PDFs from other apps is easy enough. So is annotating, although to start, you have to click the unintuitive four-way arrow icon hovering along the lower right edge of the document. This brings up your annotation tools.
Unlike the others, Skitch does not include annotation tools that only work on text. On the one hand, this saves some minor annoyance when you try to highlight a document with no text. All the annotation tools in Skitch work, all the time. And they include useful stamps like flags for marking important lines in your document, and emoticons for when you need a frowny face to accurately convey your annoyance with opposing counsel’s legal argument. On the other hand, text-only annotation tools are really nice to have when you can use them.
The annotation tools in Skitch work really well, though. When you draw, for example, Skitch smooths out your lines, which results in better-looking handwriting. And the arrow tool is bold enough to actually stand out on any document, and also much easier to place in a document than the arrow tool in GoodReader.
Skitch is actually built right into Evernote, as well. If you already have your documents in Evernote, you can annotate them right there. Annotating works exactly the same, except that your documents are saved with annotations, right where they are.
The only real downside to Skitch is that you have to be an Evernote Premium subscriber to use PDF annotation. But for quick, straightforward annotation — or if you keep your documents in Evernote — Skitch is definitely best.
So which should you use? Read on to find out.
Which Should You Use?
If you want to be able to easily annotate PDFs on your iPad now and then, and you are an Evernote Premium subscriber, just use Skitch. It is free, and it is the easiest to use.
But if you want to be able to use the text annotation tools, like highlighting and underlining, and if you aren’t an Evernote Premium subscriber, GoodReader is the best of the three apps I compared, and it has the additional advantage of being a must-have app for file management. If you have your files in the cloud or on your own file server, you should use GoodReader, anyway. And if you have it, GoodReader will probably be the app you use for viewing those files. Which means annotations will be right there, where you need them. You won’t need to worry about opening files in a new app or switching between apps. Just use the annotation toolbar whenever you want to annotate something.
Finally, if you want to annotate two PDF documents at the same time, Easy Annotate is the only real option. Otherwise, Skitch or GoodReader are the way to go.